Semantic change

Semantic change

Semantic change, also known as semantic shift or semantic progression describes the evolution of word usage — usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings. The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology, and semantics.



  • Awful - Originally meant "inspiring wonder (or fear)". It is a portmanteau of the words "awe" and "full", used originally as a shortening for "full of awe". In contemporary usage the word usually has negative meaning.
  • Demagogue - Originally meant "a popular leader". It is from the Greek demagogos (leader of the people), from demos (people) + agogos (leader). Now the word has strong connotations of a politician who panders to emotions and prejudice.
  • Egregious - Originally described something that was remarkably good. The word is from the Latin egregius (outstanding) which is from e-, ex- (out of) + greg- or grex (flock). Now it means something that is remarkably bad or flagrant.
  • Guy - Guido (Guy) Fawkes was the alleged leader of a plot to blow up the English Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605. The burning on 5 November of a grotesque effigy of Fawkes, known as a "guy," led to the use of the word "guy" as a term for any "person of grotesque appearance" and then to a general reference for a man, as in "some guy called for you." In the 20th century, under the influence of American popular culture, "guy" has been gradually replacing "fellow," "bloke," "chap" and other such words throughout the English-speaking world, and, in the plural, can refer to a mixture of genders (e.g., "Come on, you guys!" could be directed to a group of men and women).
  • Gay - Originally meant feelings of being "carefree", "happy", or "bright and showy"; it had also come to acquire some connotations of "immorality" as early as 1637. The term later began to be used in reference to homosexuality, in particular, from the early 20th century, a usage that may have dated prior to the 19th century.

Types of semantic change

A number of classification schemes have been suggested for semantic change. The most widely accepted scheme in the English-speaking academic world is from Bloomfield (1933):

  • Narrowing: Change from superordinate level to subordinate level. For example, skyline used to refer to any horizon, but now it has narrowed to a horizon decorated by skyscrapers.[1]
  • Widening: Change from subordinate level to superordinate level. There are many examples of specific brand names being used for the general product, such as with Kleenex.[1]
  • Metaphor: Change based on similarity of thing. For example, broadcast originally meant "to cast seeds out"; with the advent of radio and television, the word was extended to indicate the transmission of audio and video signals. Outside of agricultural circles, very few people use broadcast in the earlier sense.[1]
  • Metonymy: Change based on nearness in space or time, e.g., jaw "cheek" → "jaw".
  • Synecdoche: Change based on whole-part relation. The convention of using capital cities to represent countries or their governments is an example of this.
  • Meiosis: Change from weaker to stronger meaning, e.g., kill "torment" → "kill"
  • Hyperbole: . Change from stronger to weaker meaning, e.g., astound "strike with thunder" → "surprise strongly".
  • Degeneration: e.g., knave "boy" → "servant" → "deceitful or despicable man".
  • Elevation: e.g., knight "boy" → "knight".

However, the categorization of Blank (1998) has gained increasing acceptance:[2]

  • Metaphor: Change based on similarity between concepts, e.g., mouse "rodent" → "computer device".
  • Metonymy: Change based on contiguity between concepts, e.g., horn "animal horn" → "musical instrument".
  • Synecdoche: Same as above.
  • Specialization of meaning: Downward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., corn "grain" → "wheat" (UK), → "maize" (US).
  • Generalization of meaning; Upward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., hoover "Hoover vacuum cleaner" → "any type of vacuum cleaner".
  • Cohyponymic transfer: Horizontal shift in a taxonomy, e.g., the confusion of mouse and rat in some dialects.
  • Antiphrasis: Change based on a contrastive aspect of the concepts, e.g., perfect lady in the sense of "prostitute".
  • Auto-antonymy: Change of a word's sense and concept to the complementary opposite, e.g., bad in the slang sense of "good".
  • Auto-converse: Lexical expression of a relationship by the two extremes of the respective relationship, e.g., take in the dialectal use as "give".
  • Ellipsis: Semantic change based on the contiguity of names, e.g., car "cart" → "automobile", due to the invention of the (motor) car.
  • Folk-etymology: Semantic change based on the similarity of names, e.g., French contredanse, orig. English country dance.

Blank considers it problematic, though, to include amelioration and pejoration of meaning as well as strengthening and weakening of meaning. According to Blank, these are not objectively classifiable phenomena; moreover, Blank has shown that all of the examples listed under these headings can be grouped into the other phenomena.

Forces triggering semantic change

Blank[3] has tried to create a complete list of motivations for semantic change. They can be summarized as:

  • Linguistic forces
  • Psychological forces
  • Sociocultural forces
  • Cultural/encyclopedic forces

This list has been revised and slightly enlarged by Grzega (2004):[4]

  • Fuzziness (i.e., difficulties in classifying the referent or attributing the right word to the referent, thus mixing up designations)
  • Dominance of the prototype (i.e., fuzzy difference between superordinate and subordinate term due to the monopoly of the prototypical member of a category in the real world)
  • Social reasons (i.e., contact situation with "undemarcation" effects)
  • Institutional and non-institutional linguistic pre- and proscriptivism (i.e., legal and peer-group linguistic pre- and proscriptivism, aiming at "demarcation")
  • Flattery
  • Insult
  • Disguising language (i.e., "mis-nomers")
  • Taboo (i.e., taboo concepts)
  • Aesthetic-formal reasons (i.e., avoidance of words that are phonetically similar or identical to negatively associated words)
  • Communicative-formal reasons (i.e., abolition of the ambiguity of forms in context, keyword: "homonymic conflict and polysemic conflict")
  • Word play/punning
  • Excessive length of words
  • Morphological misinterpretation (keyword: "folk-etymology", creation of transparency by changes within a word)
  • Logical-formal reasons (keyword: "lexical regularization", creation of consociation)
  • Desire for plasticity (creation of a salient motivation of a name)
  • Anthropological salience of a concept (i.e., anthropologically given emotionality of a concept, "natural salience")
  • Culture-induced salience of a concept ("cultural importance")
  • Changes in the referents (i.e., changes in the world)
  • World view change (i.e., changes in the categorization of the world)
  • Prestige/fashion (based on the prestige of another language or variety, of certain word-formation patterns, or of certain semasiological centers of expansion)

Practical studies

Apart from many individual studies, etymological dictionaries are prominent reference books for finding out about semantic changes. The internet platform Onomasiology Online shows a bibliography of etymological dictionaries of languages worldwide.

Theoretical studies

Recent overviews have been presented by Blank[5] and Blank & Koch (1999). Semantic change had attracted academic discussions already in ancient times. The first major works of modern times were Reisig (1839), Darmesteter (1887), Bréal (1899), Paul (1880), Stern (1931), Bloomfield (1933) and Stephen Ullmann.[6] Studies beyond the analysis of single words have been started with the word-field analyses of Trier (1931), who claimed that every semantic change of a word would also affect all other words in a lexical field.[7] His approach was later refined by Coseriu (1964). Fritz (1964) introduced Generative semantics. More recent works including pragmatic and cognitive theories are those in Warren (1992), Dirk Geeraerts,[8] Traugott (1990) and Blank (1997).

As stated above, the most currently used typologies are those by Bloomfield (1933) and Blank (1998) shown above. Other typologies are listed below.

Typology by Reisig (1839)

Reisig's ideas for a classification were published posthumously. He resorts to classical rhetorics and distinguishes between

  • Synecdoche: shifts between part and whole
  • Metonymy: shifts between cause and effect
  • Metaphor

Typology by Paul (1880)

  • Specialization: enlargement of single senses of a word's meaning
  • Specialization on a specific part of the contents: reduction of single senses of a word's meaning
  • Transfer on a notion linked to the based notion in a spatial, temporal, or causal way

Typology by Darmesteter (1887)

  • Metaphor
  • Metonymy
  • Narrowing of meaning
  • Widening of meaning

The last two are defined as change between whole and part, which would today be rendered as synecdoche.

Typology by Bréal (1899)

  • Restriction of sense: change from a general to a special meaning
  • Enlargement of sense: change from a special to a general meaning
  • Metaphor
  • "Thickening" of sense: change from an abstract to a concrete meaning

Typology by Stern (1931)

  • Substitution: Change related to the change of an object, of the knowledge referring to the object, of the attitude toward the object, e.g., artillery "engines of war used to throw missiles" → "mounted guns", atom "inseparable smallest physical-chemical element" → "physical-chemical element consisting of electrons", scholasticism "philosophical system of the Middle Ages" → "servile adherence to the methods and teaching of schools"
  • Analogy: Change triggered by the change of an associated word, e.g., fast adj. "fixed and rapid" ← faste adv. "fixedly, rapidly")
  • Shortening: e.g., periodicalperiodical paper
  • Nomination: "the intentional naming of a referent, new or old, with a name that has not previously been used for it" (Stern 1931: 282), e.g., lion "brave man" ← "lion"
  • Regular transfer: a subconscious Nomination
  • Permutation: non-intentional shift of one referent to another due to a reinterpretation of a situation, e.g., bead "prayer" → "pearl in a rosary")
  • Adequation: Change in the attitude of a concept; distinction from substitution is unclear.

This classification does not neatly distinguish between processes and forces/causes of semantic change.

Typology by Ullmann (1957, 1962)

Ullmann distinguishes between nature and consequences of semantic change:

  • Nature of semantic change
    • Metaphor: change based on a similarity of senses
    • Metonymy: change based on a contiguity of senses
    • Folk-etymology: change based on a similarity of names
    • Ellipsis: change based on a contiguity of names
  • Consequences of semantic change
    • Widening of meaning: raise of quantity
    • Narrowing of meaning: loss of quantity
    • Amelioration of meaning: raise of quality
    • Pejoration of meaning: loss of quality

See also


  1. ^ a b c Jeffers & Lehiste (1979:129)
  2. ^ Grzega (2004) paraphrases these categories (except ellipses and folk etymology) as "similar-to" relation, "neighbor-of" relation, "part-of" relation, "kind-of" relation (for both specialization and generalization), "sibling-of" relation, and "contrast-to" relation (for antiphrasis, auto-antonymy, and auto-converse), respectively
  3. ^ in Blank (1997) and Blank (1999)
  4. ^ Compare Grzega (2004) and Grzega & Schöner (2007)
  5. ^ Blank (1997:7–46)
  6. ^ in Ullmann (1957), and Ullmann (1962)
  7. ^ An example of this comes from Old English: meat (or rather mete) referred to all forms of solid food while flesh (flæsc) referred to animal tissue and food (foda) referred to animal fodder; meat was eventually restricted to flesh of animals, then flesh restricted to the tissue of humans and food was generalized to refer to all forms of solid food Jeffers & Lehiste (1979:130)
  8. ^ in Geeraerts (1983) and Geeraerts (1997)


  • Blank, Andreas (1997), Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie 285), Tübingen: Niemeyer 
  • Blank, Andreas (1999), "Why do new meanings occur? A cognitive typology of the motivations for lexical Semantic change", in Blank; Koch, Peter, Historical Semantics and Cognition, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 61–90 
  • Blank, Andreas; Koch, Peter (1999), "Introduction: Historical Semantics and Cognition", in Blank; Koch, Peter, Historical Semantics and Cognition, Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 1–16 
  • Bloomfield, Leonard (1933), Language, New York: Allen & Unwin 
  • Bréal, Michel (1899), Essai de sémantique (2nd ed.), Paris: Hachette 
  • Coseriu, Eugenio (1964), "Pour une sémantique diachronique structurale", Travaux de Linguistique et de Littérature 2: 139–186 
  • Darmesteter, Arsène (1887), La vie des mots, Paris: Delagrave 
  • Fritz, Gerd (1974), Bedeutungswandel im Deutschen, Tübingen: Niemeyer 
  • Geeraerts, Dirk (1983), "Reclassifying Semantic change", Quaderni di semantica 4: 217–240 
  • Geeraerts, Dirk (1997), Diachronic prototype Semantics: a contribution to historical lexicology, Oxford: Clarendon 
  • Grzega, Joachim (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie, Heidelberg: Winter 
  • Grzega, Joachim; Schöner, Marion (2007), English and general historical lexicology: materials for onomasiology seminars, Eichstätt: Universität, 
  • Jeffers, Robert J.; Lehiste, Ilse (1979), Principles and methods for historical linguistics, MIT press, ISBN 0262600110 
  • Paul, Hermann (1880), Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte, Tübingen: Niemeyer 
  • Reisig, Karl (1839), "Semasiologie oder Bedeutungslehre", in Haase, Friedrich, Professor Karl Reisigs Vorlesungen über lateinische Sprachwissenschaft, Leipzig: Lehnhold 
  • Stern, Gustaf (1931), Meaning andcChange of meaning with special reference to the English language, Göteborg: Elander 
  • Traugott, Elizabeth Closs (1990), "From less to more situated in language: the unidirectionality of Semantic change", in Adamson, Silvia; Law, Vivian A.; Vincent, Nigel et al., Papers from the Fifth International Conference on English Historical Linguistics, Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp. 496–517 
  • Trier, Jost (1931), Der deutsche Wortschatz im Sinnbezirk des Verstandes (dissertation) 
  • Ullmann, Stephen (1957), Principles of Semantics (2nd ed.), Oxford: Blackwell 
  • Ullmann, Stephen (1962), Semantics: An introduction to the science of meaning, Oxford: Blackwell 
  • Warren, Beatrice (1992), Sense Developments: A contrastive study of the development of slang senses and novel standard senses in English, [Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis 80], Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell 
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003), Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 140391723X.

Further reading

  • Grzega, Joachim (2000), "Historical Semantics in the Light of Cognitive Linguistics: Aspects of a new reference book reviewed", Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 25: 233-244.
  • Koch, Peter (2002), "Lexical typology from a cognitive and linguistic point of view", in: Cruse, D. Alan et al. (eds.), Lexicology: An international handbook on the nature and structure of words and vocabularies/lexikologie: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen, [Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 21], Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, vol. 1, 1142-1178.
  • Wundt, Wilhelm (1912), Völkerpsychologie: Eine Untersuchung der Entwicklungsgesetze von Sprache, Mythus und Sitte, vol. 2,2: Die Sprache, Leipzig: Engelmann.

External links

  • Onomasiology Online (internet platform by Joachim Grzega, Alfred Bammesberger and Marion Schöner, including a list of etymological dictionaries)

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